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Investing in After School Programmes to stem learning losses, fight fast-growing inequality and build back better

by Sibongile Khumalo

Seventy percent of South Africa’s children enrol in low and no-fee (quintile one to three) schools. Pre-COVID-19, less than a third of these children were making it out of the schooling system with a matric certificate. Almost half dropped out before grade 12, usually after repeating a few grades; and this grade repetition cost the system over R20 billion annually. Eight percent of these learners matriculated with a bachelor pass, enabling them to apply for university. Just seven percent achieved maths passes that were over 50%, and one percent achieved more than 65%. These are dreadful outcomes for a system that caters to the majority, in a very unequal country!

The education system was in crisis well before the pandemic unleashed learning losses that are going to require a gargantuan effort to remedy. The medium- to longer-term impacts of lockdown, school closures and rotational arrangements will include greater learning losses, grade failures and deepening inequality. While middle-class children learned online during lockdown and are now mostly back at school, poor and working-class children are still spending a lot of time out of school, and many are hungry. Reports are that many of the adults around them have lost their jobs (if they had one to lose) and are experiencing increased symptoms of anxiety and depression. According to Nic Spaull’s recent research, nearly three million children experience hunger on a weekly basis in South Africa, and 600,000 children experience perpetual hunger (hunger every day or almost every day). South Africa’s levels of poverty and inequality – already unacceptably high before March 2020 – have now reached dystopian heights.

After School Programmes (ASPs) are offering a viable solution to many of these challenges. They are community-based interventions that provide a range of services – from humanitarian relief to academic tutoring and psychosocial support – to fight unequal learning provision and outcomes. The sector comprises programmes run largely by CBOs and NGOs serving learners in quintile one to three schools, and/or their parents, teachers and principals. As an inequality intervention, ASPs fill the learning and opportunity gaps. They complement formal schooling with extra academic and psychosocial support; safe places to learn and play; enrichment opportunities and meals, thereby creating conducive environments for holistic development.

The After School sector offers a diversity of programmes, models, and approaches all united by a common goal: enabling learners to thrive and succeed. The After School Investment Case, a report recently published by The Learning Trust, exposes the devastatingly poor returns on current investments into the education system and makes the case for investing in ASPs to deliver more and better learning outcomes. 

With 80% of the state-education spend going to personnel, and the large infrastructure backlogs, adjusting DBE’s spend to include these interventions is unlikely. The DBE’s information systems don’t track learners when they move from primary to secondary school, and does not track whether a learner has dropped out, moved schools or provinces. The lack of standardised testing in grades before matric means that we do not know which children are struggling most, or in which learning areas until it’s far too late. Teachers are mandated to deliver grade-level curriculum, and with most learners missing the basics (only one in five learners can read for meaning by grade 5), much of this is inaccessible.

Evidently the education system needs an overhaul to deliver better returns on investment, but it’s not going to happen if we continue on its current course. It is also unrealistic to expect that these problems can be fixed by schools and teachers alone. At the onset of the pandemic, ASPs responded quickly and innovatively to school closures and really demonstrated their significant value as they pivoted quickly and effectively to reach learners at home. Community-based organisations are accustomed to navigating uncertainty, and thanks to their proximity and trusted relationships with learners and parents, as well as the commitment of their funders, ASPs were able to get food to children, keep them connected to learning, and provide much-needed psycho-social support.

Free from the curriculum-coverage mandate, institutional bureaucracy and system politics, ASPs are well-positioned to meet learners where they are. They typically work with smaller groups of learners, in less formal settings, and can provide holistic programming, including sports and enrichment programmes, to meet learners’ diverse and varying needs. Without this kind of targeted intervention at the learner level, this generation will be lost wandering around in the information age unable to read or calculate.

ASPs are well-positioned to fill this gap, but are yet to deliver at scale due to financial constraints because most programmes are primarily reliant on donor funding. While the cost per learner required to participate in an ASP varies widely across the sector and geographies, for the most part, the price tag for large-scale rollout appears prohibitively expensive on a per learner basis. The great extent to which the formal system fails to deliver learning outcomes means that ASPs that do deliver these results can add significant value. While the vision of every South African learner enrolled in an ASP is important, the sector does not need to reach this scale in order to move the needle on the system’s outcomes.

However, funding decisions need to be informed by the investment per learning outcome, rather than simply the cost of inputs. The Learning Trust’s report presents two case studies – IkamvaYouth and OLICO Maths – to illustrate the value ASPs can add in delivering more and better matric learning outcomes. There are ASPs serving learners at every phase throughout the system – but a better-coordinated monitored, evaluated and funded sector can significantly improve the number of learning outcomes at every grade level.

South Africa cannot afford to continue with staggering school dropout rates, low literacy and numeracy levels, and less than half of our learners reaching and passing grade 12. We are failing to leverage South Africa’s greatest resource – the talents and energy of our young people – and an investment into the ASP sector is an investment into turning this around, to redress inequality, and promote social justice.

You can view the report here and watch the virtual launch of the report. You are also welcome to listen to this PowerFM interview for more information.

Thanks to our valued partners and to all the Fellows who continue to contribute in many ways.

  • Aspen Global Leadership Network
  • Yellowwoods
  • Barloworld
  • Tshikululu